Netflix’s Muddled Eric Squanders a Pair of Powerful Lead Performances

TV Reviews Netflix
Netflix’s Muddled Eric Squanders a Pair of Powerful Lead Performances

On paper, Netflix’s Eric should be fascinating: a prestige limited series about a missing child and a father driven to the brink of madness by his disappearance, complete with a hallucinatory giant puppet is the stuff of awards season dreams. The cast is star-studded, the performances are top-notch, the recreation of a derelict 1980s New York brimming with corruption and dirt is uncomfortably accurate. And, don’t get me wrong, there is a good show in here somewhere—several good shows, actually. But there is such a thing as trying to do too much, and in attempting to extrapolate larger social meaning out of the initial premise of one miserable man’s worst nightmare, creator Abi Morgan’s series muddles the message of all of them. 

Eric initially follows the story of Vincent Anderson (Benedict Cumberbatch), a generally awful alcoholic narcissist who is a bad father and a worse husband. The creator of a Sesame Street-esque series known as Good Day Sunshine, he’s the son of a wealthy real estate developer and his character comes complete with all the psychological damage typically wrought by rich absentee parents as well as a personal determination to both reject and refuse to acknowledge the privilege the luck of his birth has given his life. (Honestly, he’s kind of insufferable, and his lack of self-awareness really hinders the narrative when it comes to building any sort of genuine sympathy for his character.) Though he’s clearly a talented creator, Vincent is often at odds with his coworkers, his marriage to wife Abi (Gaby Hoffman) is obviously crumbling, and he’s the sort of father who can barely bring himself to be present even when standing beside his son. But when nine-year-old Edgar (Ivan Howe) disappears after a particularly vicious argument between his parents, Vincent’s downward spiral goes into overdrive. 

As his drinking worsens and his mania increases, Vincent becomes convinced the only way to bring his son home is to bring his son’s drawings of Eric—a fuzzy, seven-foot-tall, blue and orange puppet—to life on the show he grew up watching. As he steadily builds toward what feels an awful lot like a psychotic break, Vincent begins seeing hallucinations of Eric (also voiced by Cumberbatch) who becomes both his investigative partner in his search for his son and a not-at-all-subtle metaphor for his own self-recrimination and guilt. Cumberbatch has a long history of portraying tortured genius types and is predictably strong here, playing Vincent remarkably straight for a character who spends most of his screen time with a giant puppet. The role is sadly underdeveloped—the reason why Vincent is the way he is boils down to little more than daddy issues, and the show feels remarkably uninterested in his history of mental illness beyond the ways it allows the series’ central conceit to exist—but Cumberbatch makes the most of what he’s given. 

Running in parallel to this plot, Eric also follows the story of Detective Michael LeDroit (McKinley Belcher III), a closeted NYPD detective on the Missing Persons desk and one of the only Black cops in his precinct. His story alone could power a fairly compelling drama in its own right, as he’s forced to hide key pieces of who he is from his colleagues as he cares for a lover dying of AIDS at home (Mark Gillis) and dodges his boss’ (David Denman) attempts to set him up with the office secretary (Erika Soto). Assigned to Edgar’s case, LeDroit’s investigation sees him butt heads with various figures in local government, particularly as he begins to draw connections between the boy’s disappearance and a similar event from several months prior involving a missing Black teen from the same neighborhood that the department has seemingly given up on finding. (That this involves a local nightclub that may or may not be running a prostitution ring and a bunch of grudges from LeDroit’s time with the Vice squad is just another example of Eric making its own story more complicated than it needs to be.) 

Nevertheless, it is through LeDroit that Eric finds its strongest voice, exploring larger systemic issues such as racism, homophobia, political corruption, and homelessness. The show isn’t particularly subtle when it comes to raising these points, but it is here that it feels like Eric is actually attempting to say something genuinely meaningful. LeDroit’s perspective is by far the series’ most interesting, his emotional arc the clearest and most compelling. And Belcher is the show’s secret weapon throughout, giving what might otherwise be a thankless procedural role genuine depth and a quiet, thoughtful expressiveness that’s a welcome contrast to Vincent’s constant self-centered belligerence. 

The main problem with Eric is that it never truly brings these stories together in a way that feels tonally or narratively satisfactory. Often, the series feels like two completely different shows fighting under a blanket, one that’s a detailed character portrait of a man in various states of mental collapse, the other a more standard procedural thriller that takes viewers into the gritty underbelly of life on the streets among New York’s most marginalized. Neither of these competing stories quite gets enough time to breathe on its own, and the show’s insistence on obviously lamp-shading every one of its main narrative points (spoiler alert: Vincent’s dad sucks and the NYPD is racist) gets tiresome very quickly. The end result is that you’ll guess how the story will conclude well before the show tells you, and only wonder why it didn’t get there sooner. 

Clocking in at just six episodes (all of which were available for review), Eric at least makes for a fairly quick, if unevenly paced, watch. But it’s hard not to wonder what a different version of this show might have been—one that picked a lane and stuck with it, or that was more confident in what it was ultimately trying to achieve by telling this story in the first place. Because as it stands, it’s difficult to view this one as anything other than a disappointment. 

Eric is now streaming on Netflix. 

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV

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